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Yom Kippur Morning 5780 - "The Hands on the Kids"

As many of you know, Anthony and I spent five years in California.  As a lifelong New Yorker, living in California took some getting used to.  For one thing, everyone in the Bay Area dressed like they had just come back from hiking.  Business attire seemed to mean wearing your good hoodie.  And, compared to New York, people were clearly in less of a rush. There were other things to think about: organic produce, kayaking, feng shui.

The laid back approach was most obvious on the freeway, where the lines on the road appeared to be mere suggestions.  In New York, people would cut you off because they were thinking it would save them 10 seconds on their commute.  In the Bay Area, people would cut you off because they were thinking about composting.

I was blessed to serve as the rabbi/educator of a sweet community in the East Bay.  They too were laid back and friendly.  But as I got to know the congregation and its students better, I realized they weren’t laid back about everything.

My second year there, I started teaching in a weekly community program for Jewish high school kids.   One evening, around a circular table, a teenage boy started complaining about his younger sister.  “She gets away with everything!”

Running a religious school, I had heard my share of sibling fights.  But quickly it became clear that this was different.

“All she has to do is get good grades.  That’s all my parents care about!”

I looked around the table.  Heads nodded.  Another boy volunteered, resignedly, “They really don’t care about anything else.”

I realized I’d be ignoring my lesson plan for the rest of the night.

I paused for a moment, thought, and then asked the first boy, “Do you sometimes wonder if your parents love you less because your grades aren’t as good?”

The tears welling in his eyes told me the answer.

Part of my job at the synagogue was teaching the b’nei mitzvah students trope for their Torah portions.  By coincidence, I soon began meeting with the boy’s younger sister for trope.  As I imagined, she was capable and confident.  But while she moved through most of the exercises with ease, she didn’t usually seem at ease.

One week, she came in unprepared.  As any b’nei mitzvah tutor can tell you, this happens.  Usually I’d send kids into the library to practice on their own for a few minutes.  They’d get the message that they should come prepared in the future, they’d some review in, and we’d pick up from there.  No big deal.

But when I suggested that she take some time to study in the library, it seemed like a big deal to her.  Her face grew red, and now it was her turn to cry.  Big wet tears rolled down her cheeks.

“What’s going on kiddo?”

It turned out she had tried to do the lesson I’d assigned her.  But it was hard.  And it scared her that it was hard.

After all, she was good at everything.  She was used to being good at everything. 

“Is this the first thing you’ve done that doesn’t come easy to you?”

More tears.

Here was the golden child, whose older brother resented her for her good grades.  Resented her for being loved more.  And she was absolutely miserable.

I told her to close her books.  One of the advantages of working in a California synagogue is that you can almost always go outside.  And out back, behind the shul, across the main road, was a beautiful range of gentle rolling hills.  The kind that’s all over California, with the tall, swaying grass that turns brown in the burnished summer sun.  I told my young student to look out at the hills.  And to breathe. 

“You see those hills out there?”

(I was making it up as I went along.)

“Those hills were here before us.  And they will be here after we’re gone.  You can just breathe whatever you’re worried about out into those hills.”

She breathed.  Cried some more, but breathed.  And calmed down.  WhewGo me.

We just stood there for awhile.

“It’s a service, not a performance,” I said.  “It’s not supposed to be perfect.  You know that, right?”

She shrugged.

“Do you believe me?”

She shrugged again.

So here were two kids, a teenager and a twelve-year-old — great kids, funny, clever, charming — who were both miserable. 

But here was the thing.  These parents were also great people.  Affectionate with their kids, kind to me and the other rabbi, dutiful volunteers. What was going on?

As it turned out, it was a good thing I came up with that whole breathing-into-the-hills thing.  I’d go out back again when another kid cried.  Then another.  It kept happening — kids crying in my office after struggling with a particular assignment.  I have to say — I was beginning to get a complex.  Did I just make kids cry?

But I noticed a pattern.  The kids who broke down were invariably the high achievers.  The ones, like the young girl, who were used to being good at things.  Who freaked out when things didn’t come easy.

A few months later, I found out a little more.  Some of the parents, it seems, had started comparing how many verses of Torah the kids were chanting.  They wanted to make sure that their kid was chanting at least as much as the other kids.  Parents who, I might add, often couldn’t chant Torah themselves.  Some, in fact, who couldn’t read Hebrew.

It was a lot to lay on kids.  And the strain was showing.

As you may know by now, I’ve connected all my High Holiday sermons to the theme of “home.”  This morning, I want to focus on our physical homes — more specifically, the people in our homes.  How we see them.  What we expect of them.

Which brings me — of course! — to this morning’s Torah reading.  Stay with me here.

It’s, in a word, odd.  As we just read, the high priest Aaron is directed to bring a variety of animals before God.  The centerpiece of the ritual is a tale of two goats, one designated to be sent away, taking with it the sins of the people, while the other goat is sacrificed on the Temple altar.

On a day devoted to, well, devotion — why read this story?  When we’re supposed to be reconsidering our choices, weighing who we’ve been and what we’ve done, why focus on a story of two goats?

One goat is sent away into the wilderness.  One is sacrificed.  Is it possible something about this story rings a bell?

My teacher, Ora Horn Prouser, points out the striking connection between this story, and the Rosh haShanah Torah readings.[1]  Literally, two kids.  In the case of the Rosh haShanah readings, one kid — Ishmael — is sent out into the wilderness.  The other kid — Isaac — is sacrificed.  Or, thank God, almost-but-not-quite sacrificed.

In that context, perhaps, this strange ritual makes more sense.

Two children, with two sets of expectations.  Neither one appreciated for who they are.

One kid, the sacrifice, hands laid upon its head, kept at home and not permitted space to grow into a fullness of spirit.  And the other kid, the scapegoat, hands also laid upon its head, but only to receive a burden, and sent away from home.

Neither one makes the decision about what will happen to them.  The fate of both Isaac and Ishmael is determined without their input.

Perhaps you have been one of those kids.  Maybe you’ve laid your hands on one of those kids.

We should pause here to note that these rituals feel somewhat absurd.  We know that goats can’t take sins away.  The ritual, on its own, actually seems to undermine what our tradition teaches us about these days, and the opportunity they offer us.

We know that teshuvah, the thing we’ve been trying to do over the course of the past few weeks, is a process.  It involves doing self-reflection, examining our deeds, and approaching those we’ve wronged.  Asking for forgiveness.  Asking how we can make things right.  And asking ourselves how we can right ourselves so that, going forward, we can walk a path of love and compassion. 

Putting your hands on a goat and sending it off into the wilderness can’t do any of that.  Perhaps, then, the point of all of this is to point out that absurdity.

Like, first of all, remember this was a ritual for the mishkan, the Tabernacle, and then the Temple — not for us.  Don’t get confused between the Beit haMikdash and your own bayit, between God’s house in Jerusalem, and your own house.

After all, this is a ritual for goats — not people!

Maybe the rabbis are reminding us — be careful not to do that to our family members, the people we live with.  The people we love.

After all, laying a burden is not only a physical process.  Note the language, for instance, of “laying a guilt trip” on someone.  Laying expectations on them, sending them out into the world to be some version of what we need them to be.  Not who they need to be.

The kids who are expected to go out and be smart and successful, be good athletes or get good grades — because she’s told that otherwise it would reflect badly on the family.

The kid whose well-being is sacrificed, who doesn’t think he’s lovable, because he doesn’t get those grades.

The child who chooses a career in music instead of medicine, whose embarrassed parents forever ask, “when are you gonna get a real job?”

The wife who is expected to attend all the office parties, but never have an opinion of her own.

The husband who is expected to earn a certain amount of money, to maintain a lifestyle that matches those of the neighbors.

The partner who is always expected to cater to the in-laws, to keep the peace, and keep quiet.

Is it possible that we can love the people in our lives, without laying burdens on them?  Love them not for who we expect them to be, but for who they are?

Does this sound judgmental?  I hope not.  None of this is easy.  As Stu Wachter pointed out in his powerful Rosh haShanah drash, you can see the challenges of family expectations throughout the book of Genesis.  Isaac’s desire favors Esau, the powerful hunter who acts with the power perhaps he wished he’d had, for instance, while Rebecca favors the homebody Jacob.  Imagine the heartache that could be avoided if Isaac and Rebecca agreed to love them both, as they were, for who they were. 

Tragically, the family heartache continues, as Jacob ends up marrying two sisters, Rachel and Leah, who also struggle under the burden of family expectations.

Leah, as you may know, is married off to Jacob, a man who doesn’t love her, because that’s what her father wants.

And when she feels the lack of love from Jacob, she gives her sons names that reflect her own sense of sadness and longing.  She names her first child Reuben, Re’uven, from the words for “seeing a son.”[2]  In her words, "God has seen my affliction, and now my husband will love me."  She names her second child Shimon, like Shema.  "God heard that I am hated."[3]  Maybe another son will help.  And she names her third child Levi, from the Hebrew for attachment or connection.  “This time my husband will be attached to me, for I have given him three sons.”[4]

It is perhaps not a surprise that, under the stifling burden of such expectations, the children do not work their intended magic on Jacob.

But, meanwhile, life between Jacob and Leah’s favored sister Rachel is no picnic either.  In contrast to Leah, Rachel remains childless.  This situation doesn’t seem to trouble Jacob, but it drives Rachel into deep grief and anguish.   She lays this burden on her husband.

Hava-li banim, she demands of her husband.  “Give me children!”  V’im ayin, meita anochi!  “And if not,” she shouts at Jacob, “I’ll die!”[5]

Jacob, predictably, does not react well, laying the blame on God — Who at least can take it — claiming it’s God who’s denied Rachel children. Ha-tachat Elohim anochi?  “Should I take the place of God?”

Even as, finally, Rachel gives birth to a child, she doesn’t express gratitude, but instead looks for more children to fill the longing in her soul.  She names the child before her Joseph, adding yosef YHVH li ben acher.  “May God add to me another son.”[6]

The story of Rachel and Leah shows that this demand that the people we love make up for what we ourselves desire is an old story.

But in a hypercompetitive world, a world of dwindling resources and stagnant wages and increasingly deregulated capitalism, the pressure we put on each other has only become greater.

Spouses feel pressured by each other to make more money.  And children feel more pressure to excel.

Ironically, it is sometimes the kids who already excel – like my star b’nei mitzvah students back in the Bay Area — who suffer the most.  I was discussing this with Andrew Shen, the principal at RJ Grey Middle School, who recommended to me the work of Dr. Madeline Levine, a psychologist based in (perhaps no surprise) Palo Alto.

In Levine’s book The Price of Privilege, she finds that the most privileged of adolescents are experiencing epidemic rates of depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse.  Materialism, pressure to achieve, perfectionism, disconnection — according to Levine, these factors are combining to create a crisis in what she describes as America's “culture of affluence.”

This culture has created, among other things, a world where parents of college applicants were willing to pay more than $25 million to fraudulently inflate test scores and bribe college officials.

As you no doubt heard, this scandal, nicknamed Varsity Blues, involved parents bribing exam administrators to help their kids cheat on entrance exams, and bribing coaches to pretend that their kids were elite recruited athletes.  Like, for instance, the parents who paid $1.2 million to turn their non-soccer playing teenage daughter into a star soccer recruit at Yale.

Some of the kids involved were in on the scam.  But others weren’t.  One father, a Silicon Valley investor named William McGlashan, went to great lengths to conceal from his son that he had used Photoshop to make the kid appear to be a football kicker, despite the fact that his son “only” played lacrosse.

Some people have indulged in schadenfreude over the scandal — relishing in the comeuppance brought upon these wealthy families.  Others expressed outrage.  Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said that “the real victims in this case are the hardworking students,” displaced in the admissions process by “far less qualified students and their families who simply bought their way in.”

But imagine, just for a moment, being one of those students.  Imagine being the child of a parent so obsessed with your entrance to a certain college that he was willing to brazenly lie and cheat — and, ultimately, expose you to public humiliation.

Or, imagine, being the child of a parent willing to go to such lengths, and realizing you didn’t really want to go to that college.  Could you even admit such a thing?  Or would you stand motionless, like a goat before the High Priest, hands on your head, about to be sent into the wilderness for someone else’s needs?

Many Jews express discomfort over some of the vivid language in prayers like the Unetaneh Tokef, especially regarding its graphic descriptions of human suffering.

Who shall live, and who shall die.  Who by fire, who by water.  Who by strangling, who by stoning.

But as we sit, today, with those words, can we ask ourselves: have our desires for what’s best for our loved ones actually masked attempts to satisfy our own needs.  Has the fire of our ambition scorched those closest to us?  Has a wave of expectation drowned our family members in unrealistic expectations?  Have they felt strangled by our demands, buried under the rubble of our dissatisfaction?

Or, perhaps, we haven’t laid such burdens on our children or partners.  Perhaps, instead, you are a person who lays these kinds of burdens on yourself.  A person who places unforgiving demands on your own soul, never satisfied with your own achievements or title?  Perhaps you make yourself the scapegoat?

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of obsessing over what could be, instead of appreciating what is.  And not just in families.  Sometimes these feelings emerge in workplaces.

Or synagogues. 

And, sometimes, the burden of expectation comes from rabbis.

These days, for-profit businesses aren’t the only organizations to feel the pinch of limited resources.  When I arrived at CBE, I felt an urgency to address some of our biggest challenges head on. I saw a community that needed to bring in new members, and new sources of revenue.  Because of this urgency, I moved fast.

I realize now that, in doing so, I made some mistakes.

I deeply regret that I didn’t fully acknowledge all the work that had been done, prior to my arrival, to sustain this community. Just because there were things that had gone wrong didn’t mean I was justified in ignoring the things that were very right. I fear that, like the High Priest laying the burdens of the people on a solitary goat, I laid my anxiety about what we needed to achieve as a synagogue on some of its hardest working volunteers.  I have asked their forgiveness for the slight.  I pray that they will be generous with that forgiveness.

Which leaves us, ultimately, with a question.  How do we stop doing this?  Yes, we need to let people know when they’ve hurt us, and stand up for our right to be treated decently.  We are, after all, created in God’s image.

But, of course, so is everyone else!  Even the people who annoy or disappoint us.

And so, even with those people, how can we become more compassionate, more gracious, more loving?

We start, I think, with gratitude and appreciation.  When feelings of disappointment in other people start to bubble up, can we take a moment, and pause, and remind ourselves what’s is good and decent about that person?  Can we take the advice of our sages, inscribed right here on our ark doors, from Pirkei Avot: “Joshua ben P’rachya used to say…” Ve-hevey dan et kol ha-adam l’chaf z’chut.

“Judge every person favorably. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt.”[7]

Every Shabbat I come into this sanctuary this year, I have committed to looking up at these words, and reminding myself of their deep wisdom.

And, speaking of Shabbat, another great antidote to disappointment is Shabbat itself.  After all, Shabbat is a day not for accomplishing, doing, or earning.  It’s a day for just being.  Being in community, being at home with people we love, being together at shul or at the dinner table.

And Shabbat also gives us, perhaps, the most powerful antidote to the harshness of the ritual described in today’s Torah portion.  It is birchot ha-mishpacha – the family blessing, including the priestly blessing.  It too involves placing hands on kids.  But in this case it’s human kids, not goats. 

Rather than placing our anxieties and disappointments on our kids, we bless them.  Tellingly, for the male-identified kids, we bless them not that that they should be like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but k’Ephraim u’Menashe.  “Like Ephraim and Menashe.”  The brothers who — on the heels of three generation of conflict — finally learn, at the end of the book of Genesis, how to get along.

So, today, and this Shabbat — and the Shabbat after that — I invite you to look at the people you love, of any gender, and give them a blessing.  Not to become or achieve anything, but just to be the beautiful creation of God that they are.

To say to them Y’varech’cha YHVH v’yishmarecha.  “May God bless you and protect you.”  Vi’chuneka.  “And give you grace.”  Vi’yasem l’cha shalom.  “And grant you peace.”

After all, the people we love aren’t numbers.  They aren’t their salary or their weight.  They aren’t their GPA or their IRA.   They aren’t their number of likes — on Facebook or Instagram.  They aren’t their marathon time, their credit score, the number of goals they rack up, or the number of awards they earn.  Or even the number of verses of Torah they chant.

 

The people we love are precious souls that can’t be measured, loved with a love that can’t be measured.

These Days of Awe remind us that we don’t how many days we’re allotted.  While love is infinite, life is not.

What if we could live our lives in recognition of our limited time with the people we love? 

What if we could turn, this morning, to a new consciousness?  A new path?

A path of compassion, where mistakes are expected and accommodated, and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning.

A path of gratitude, focused not on our disappointment in what the people we love aren’t, but instead on appreciation for the beautiful souls that they are.

A path of anticipation, a path of excitement, as we learn who they are becoming.

A new path, in this New Year, of discovery and rediscovery, remembering why we love the people we love, and growing closer as we learn to express that love, becoming more generous in our kindness.  A path of hope and healing.  A path of giving.  A path, finally, of peace.

 

[1] https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/echoes-of-the-scapegoat/

 

[2] Genesis 29:32

[3] Ibid. 29:33

[4] Ibid. 29:34

[5] Genesis 30:1

[6] Ibid. 30:24

[7] Pirkei Avot 1:6

Sat, July 24 2021 15 Av 5781